American Psychological Association apologizes for involvement in the US torture programme

July 13, 2015

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In the beginning of July 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a 542-page report produced by attorney David Hoffman of the Sidley Austin law firm, detailing the relationship between various activities of the APA and Bush Administration policies on interrogation techniques. Mr. Hoffman was asked by the APA Board of Directors last November to conduct a thorough and independent review of whether there was any factual support for the assertion that the APA engaged in activity that would constitute collusion with the Bush administration to promote, support or facilitate the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques by the United States in the war on terror. 

As summarized by IFHHRO member Physicians for Human Rights-USA, the report concludes that there is overwhelming evidence of criminal activity by APA staff and officials. This includes:

  1. Colluding with the U.S. Department of Defense, the CIA, and other elements of the Bush administration to enable psychologists to design, implement, and defend the post-9/11 torture programme
  2. Allowing military and intelligence personnel to write APA ethics policies regulating their own conduct to ensure they were “covered” for their roles in the torture programme
  3. Engaging in a coordinated campaign to cover up the collusion and blocking attempts to oppose these policies within the APA
  4. Obstructing and manipulating ethics investigations into psychologists involved in the torture programme

Response APA

“The Hoffman report contains deeply disturbing findings that reveal previously unknown and troubling instances of collusion,” said Dr. Susan McDaniel, a member of the APA’s Independent Review’s Special Committee. “The process by which the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) was created, the composition of the membership, the content of the PENS report and the subsequent activities related to the report were influenced by collusion between a small group of APA representatives and government officials.”

The Hoffman report states that the intent of the individuals who participated in the collusion was to “curry favor” with the Defense Department (DoD), and that may have enabled the government’s use of abusive interrogation techniques. As a result, the 2005 PENS report became a document based at least as much on the desires of the DoD as on the needs of the psychology profession and the APA’s commitment to human rights. 

“Our internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion, or properly acknowledge a significant conflict of interest, nor did they provide meaningful field guidance for psychologists,” said Dr. Nadine Kaslow, chair of the Independent Review’s Special Committee. “The organization’s intent was not to enable abusive interrogation techniques or contribute to violations of human rights, but that may have been the result. The actions, policies and the lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values. We profoundly regret, and apologize for, the behavior and the consequences that ensued. Our members, our profession and our organization expected, and deserved, better.”

Response PHR

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has called for a full investigation into the APA’s role in the US torture programme by the U.S. Department of Justice. “The corruption of a health professional organization at this level is an extraordinary betrayal of both ethics and the law, and demands an investigation and appropriate prosecutions,” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “Rather than uphold the principle of ‘do no harm,’ APA leadership subverted its own ethics policies and sabotaged all efforts at enforcement.”

PHR said the new report confirms findings from a decade of PHR investigations into the illegal and unethical participation of health professionals in the US torture program. Since 2005, PHR has campaigned for the reform of APA policies and governance, and has repeatedly called for a federal investigation into the role of psychologists and other health professionals in this program.

“As mental health professionals, our first obligation must be to our patients,” said Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, psychiatrist and vice chair of the PHR Board of Directors. “The APA’s collusion with the government’s national security apparatus is one of the greatest scandals in US medical history. Immediate action must be taken to restore health professional ethics and to ensure this never happens again.” 

Update 16 July 2015: PHR has started a letter-writing campaign aimed at urging Attorney General Loretta Lynch to open a criminal investigation into the conduct of the APA.

Update 7 August 2015: A decision was taken by the American Psychological Association to ban psychologists from participating in national security interrogations and advising on their confinement conditions, and to withdraw their presence from Guantánamo and other sites operating illegally. 

Full report

Report to the special committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association independent review relating to APA ethics guidelines, national security interrogations, and torture, D. Hoffman, D. Carter, C. Viglucci Lopez, et al. Sidley Austin LLP, 2015 – Download PDF


Press release APA

Press release PHR